Book review: Reporting Live from the End of the World

Reporting Live from the End of the World,  By David Shukman, Profile, €15.60
Published in The Sunday Business Post on May 30th, 2010, reviewed by Alex Meehan

The Arctic Circle’s infamous Northwest Passage confounded explorers for hundreds of years, until Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen successfully navigated it in 1903.

Once thought a myth, the route offered a potentially invaluable way to shorten the sea voyage from Europe to the Far East, but when Amundsen eventually proved it was real, it turned out to be commercially useless for shipping purposes. The majority of the route was frozen solid and, where it was navigable, its waters were too shallow to allow large vessels through.

The passage would remain a footnote in the history of Arctic exploration until 2009, when satellite imagery showed that it had melted to the point that it appeared to be able to accommodate large vessels. Dispatched to report from the scene, BBC reporter David Shukman discovered the new controversy surrounding the route that Amundsen had forged almost 100 years previously – now that it looked like it might be a source of revenue, a major dispute had begun over which country owned it, with Canada claiming the right to tax transit through the area.

The story is one of a number recounted by Shukman in Reporting Live from the End of the World, an account of his initiation into the world of environmental reporting.

Having initially started out reporting from the North in the mid-1980s, Shukman moved on to become the BBC’s defence correspondent, before switching to European affairs and, later being appointed world affairs correspondent. By 2003, years of reporting from war zones had left him burnt out. Even so, when it was first suggested that he become the BBC’s environment and science correspondent, he wasn’t keen; a self confessed sceptic on green issues, he initially felt that the job represented a step down to a field he considered dull and comparatively unimportant.

However, as the scope of the job was made clear to him and he began to explore his new brief, he became increasingly convinced of the area’s importance.

The experiences he recounts in Reporting Live from the End of the World make for an engaging read, as well as providing an interesting account of just how green issues are reported by the mass media.

One of his more telling anecdotes relates a tense exchange with a floor manager and cameraman while he waits in the wings of a TV studio, killing time before going on air. The news item concerns a report on new government sponsored research into the threat of rising sea levels in the next century, and while running through his script, a cameraman takes him to task.

‘‘If the seas are rising, how can that be blamed on global warming? How do they know there isn’t a perfectly natural reason for it?” Shukman replies that he’s a correspondent, not a campaigner, that he’s merely reporting and doesn’t have an agenda. But time and time again, he is accosted by hardliners on both sides of the great environmental debate.

When the subject of global warming and climate change comes up, Shukman finds himself continually confronted by well meaning members of the public demanding to know why, if climate change is happening, they are seeing more rain/ sun/snow/drought/delete as applicable in their area.

When he reports on evidence supporting the idea that global warming is manmade, he is accused of being an ideological believer, one of the irrational faithful. But when he presents the weaknesses in some arguments and the lack of scientific rigour in some research, he’s accused of being part of a media conspiracy.

The book has plenty of entertaining snippets about the practical issues that come with trying to broadcast live from remote islands, snowy wastelands and ocean-going vessels. Technology has made things easier, but heavy equipment still has to be carried by hand, often to remote locations, and broadcasters are at the mercy of weather conditions and environmental factors.

Shukman travels with his team to the Midway Atoll, a coral island in the South Pacific which is 2,000 miles from the nearest continent, but also located right in the middle of tidal currents linking the northern and southern hemispheres. Despite its official status as a wildlife reserve – the island is home to around two million albatrosses – its white sandy beaches are covered in rubbish: lengths of rope, shampoo bottles, computer component casings and plastic sheeting.

The island has internet access, allowing the team to broadcast a signal, but in order to free up enough bandwidth for a successful transmission, they have to ask everyone on the island not to use the internet for the time required.

This, and stories like it, form the bulk of Shukman’s book, making it more of a personal memoir than an issue driven polemic. And it’s precisely because he’s not out to convert people that Reporting Live from the End of the World is as effective as it is, and offers a balanced and thought provoking account of how green issues affect our day to day lives.

Book review: Procession of the Dead, by DB Shan

Procession Of The Dead. By DB Shan. Harper Voyager, €14.80

Published in The Sunday Business Post on March 2nd, 2008, reviewed by Alex Meehan

Procession of the Dead is the latest novel from Darren O’Shaughnessy, writing under the pen name DB Shan. O’Shaughnessy is one of I r e land’s most successful genre authors – his children’s fantasy and horror series The Saga Of Darren Shan And The Demonata are on sale in 35 countries and in 28 languages.

In Procession Of The Dead, Shan has turned his hand to writing for adults, and has taken the precaution of using a pseudonym to prevent children confusing this new book with his usual output.

The story starts with Capac Raimi arriving in the city to apprentice himself to his uncle, a once great gangster now fallen on hard times. Raimi has an unusual name, derived from ancient Incan culture, and this quickly saves his life and brings him to the attention of the Cardinal, the larger-than-life mafioso who rules the city.

The Cardinal’s tentacles are long and far-reaching, and nothing happens in the city without his saying so. Politicians beg for his backing, actors plead for help securing academy awards and popes come and go when summoned. The all-powerful Cardinal runs the city and, for some strange reason, he’s taken an interest in Raimi.

Offered a job in the Cardinal’s organisation, Raimi is set the task of learning the firm from the ground up, starting out in the insurance business. Much to the annoyance of the Cardinal’s existing henchmen and hangers on, Raimi looks like he could be destined to become the organisation’s next leader and the headman’s heir.

But all is not as it seems, and people close to Raimi start to disappear. This is not unusual in the city, but strangely, nobody but Raimi seems to notice they’re gone or even remember them. Raimi is compelled to investigate, but acting behind the psychotic Cardinal’s back is a very dangerous game.

Procession Of The Dead is the first book of the City trilogy and was previously published under the name Ayuamarca in 1999. At the time, both this book and its sequel, Hell’s Horizon, received good reviews but didn’t sell well enough to remain in print, and the third part of the trilogy – City Of The Snakes – was never published.

This time, however, O’Shaughnessy has returned to these adult novels and substantially rewritten them, drawing on the experience he’s gained as a writer in the last ten years. Aspects of the book betray its chequered past though – while the dialogue sparkles and rips along at breakneck speed, in places, the first person narrative descends into clunky and plodding description that is difficult to read and pulls the reader out of the story.

This is part of the problem that authors face when they choose to write in the first person – all events in the story have to be related via the experience of the main character. It can be a real challenge to do this creatively enough to not have the reader become aware of the man behind the curtain.

That said, in this case, the problem is forgivable, as the total package is well done and entertaining. The plot is excellent, with many twists and turns, and the technicolour cast of characters are as entertaining as they are repellent.

With Procession Of The Dead, O’Shaughnessy has produced a macabre, yet stylish, dark urban fantasy that’s more than worth the cover price for fantasy fans who like their strangeness to have an urban noir feel.

First person interview: Michael Nugent, Atheist Ireland

First Person: Michael Nugent
Published in the Sunday Business Post on 28 June 2009, by Alex Meehan

Michael Nugent, 48, writer, activist and chairman of Atheist Ireland, Dublin.

As far back as I can remember, I have been an atheist. I probably stopped believing in God around the same time – and for the same reasons – as I stopped believing in Santa Claus. It seemed to me to be just another fictional story.

Atheist Ireland stands for two things. The first is promoting atheism and reason over superstition and supernaturalism, and the second is promoting an ethical and secular Ireland in which the state doesn’t fund or favour any particular religion.

We’re campaigning against Dermot Ahern’s attempt to introduce blasphemy legislation. We’d like to see a secular constitution and we’d like to see religion taken out of the state-funded education system.

I’ve always felt that religion, particularly in the Irish context, is damaging to society. It hinders our quest for knowledge by imposing imagined answers to big questions, and then insisting that those answers are the final word on the matter.

There were a number of issues that encouraged me to campaign on this issue. The Catholic Church’s role in the recent sex abuse scandal in Ireland and the role religion played in encouraging fundamentalist Muslims to destroy the Twin Towers were just two of them.

You don’t need the idea of God to know what is right and wrong and how to live a morally good life. In fact, the idea of God facilitates otherwise good people doing bad things, because they can justify it to themselves based on texts written in the Bronze Age by some tribesman.

After Catholics, atheists are the largest group of people expressing an opinion on religion in Ireland. In the last census, a total of 180,000 people ticked the ‘no religion’ box. On top of that, there were around another 60,000 who didn’t answer the ‘what religion are you’ question.

At the moment, to be president or a judge in Ireland, you have to take a religious oath. So that rules out the quarter of a million people who don’t believe in God, unless they want to be a hypocrite.

Small religions, which are described as cults by large religions, engage in disgraceful behaviour in order to brainwash people into their activities. However, the only reason that mainstream religions don’t do that is because they don’t have to – they indoctrinate children when they’re too young to be critical of what they are learning.

The ideas found within Catholicism are no madder than those found in Scientology, it’s just that most people are used to Catholicism. Transubstantiation is particularly silly, but it makes sense when you’re six because you make no distinction between rational and magical behaviour.

I think some people don’t believe in God, but don’t want to describe themselves as an atheist as the word has negative connotations. Instead they call themselves agnostic or humanist, or just non-religious. It’s more a concern about the label than the beliefs behind the label.

The only way to overcome that prejudice is for people with that shared world view to use the term atheist, and to be seen to make rational and reasonable contributions to society. In time, the use of the word will be seen as a normal part of general public discourse.

Atheist Ireland holds its first annual general meeting on July 11 in Dublin. For more information, visit

Summer miscellany

Some random but significant pictures from Summer 2010.Swimming at Greystones Harbour

Kindlestown Woods

Sam at bathtime

Sam’s double rainbow

Bob, after a rare haircut and groom

Rewording the resumes

Rewording the resumés

Published in The Sunday Business Post on March 28th 2010, by Alex Meehan

The new economic climate has changed the way recruiters operate, and jobseekers must modify their CVs to reflect that reality, writes Alex Meehan.

Most people would agree that there is a big difference between adding a hobby or pastime to your CV to make yourself seem more interesting, and falsifying your employment history to secure a job you may not be qualified for. But that is just the kind of embellishment that is increasingly finding its way on to the CVs of jobseekers desperate to make their application stand out from the crowd.

Recruiter Mark Staunton said the dramatic turnaround in the labour market had left many candidates, unaware of how to sell their skills effectively, at a loss. ‘‘For the last couple of years, people often haven’t needed to bother with CVs – they were just going from one job to another,” said Staunton, chief executive of Noel Recruitment in Waterford.

‘‘They may have filled in an online application form or something similar. Now we are back to CVs and everyone is competing for the same jobs. Of course, you are going to find people padding their details out.”

One issue that Staunton said could confuse potential employers was how to read job titles on the CVs of  job applicants. ‘‘You have to forget preconceived ideas of what a job title means,” he said.

‘‘There are some traditional warning signs. Obviously, if a 21-year-old walks in the door and says they were sales director after six months with a company, then none of us can take that seriously – but there are other less obvious issues that can arise.

‘‘For example, it can be hard to tell from a job title alone how senior a person was within a company. Take a catering unit manager, working in a factory somewhere. That catering unit could be supplying good breakfasts and basic sandwiches, and the person overseeing that function could be very competent.

‘‘However, the catering manager overseeing Microsoft’s campus would be working at a totally different level – he or she could be feeding thousands of people three times a day. The same is true of a catering manager working for a bank or five-star hotel. These are very different jobs with the same title.”

Staunton said that experienced recruiters had the skills to read between the lines, and judge experience and seniority as it related to the same role in different organisations. He advised employers to assess applicants’ CVs with evidence of career progression in mind. They should, he said, ask themselves questions like, ‘Has a candidate jumped from account supervisor moving to sales director, or from technician to engineer and, if so, how rapidly did those career changes occur?’.

‘‘Look at someone who says they work to targets – ask how the targets were calculated and how much they achieved. If someone says they were responsible for sales, see where the sales enquiries started out – did they make cold calls or are they just processing someone else’s leads?” he said.

‘‘Always find out who someone reports to. If they are a senior engineer and they report to another senior engineer and not an engineering or technical manager, then maybe they’re really just an engineer.

‘‘Getting a third party to shortlist CVs and do interviews is extremely helpful in catching details like this. An experienced interviewer develops a feel for reading people, and there are certain things they know to look out for – both on paper and in person.”

Candidates who doctor their CVs do not always do so to improve their apparent experience levels, according to Mark Fielding, chief executive of Isme. ‘‘We have found this works both ways. While some people are adding to their CVs to make themselves more employable, certain older people are also omitting jobs they held early in their career as they don’t want to be seen to be too old,” said Fielding.

‘‘Overall, there is a fantastic opportunity out there for small businesses to get high-class quality people on board to help them make the most of the situation they are in, and to position them for better days ahead. Eighteen months ago, you’d pay a king’s ransom for a decent financial controller, but you can get a great candidate today at a much more affordable salary level.”

However, Fielding said that it was often difficult for companies to sift through job applications in the current environment, simply because there were often far too many.

‘‘Given that there are so many people looking for jobs, getting good applicants shouldn’t be difficult – but the problem is the sheer number of people out there. Companies that are choosing to advertise to fill vacancies directly are finding that they are being flooded with CVs, and many of them just don’t have the time to deal with the response,” he said.

Fielding advised companies to consider using the services of a recruiter. ‘‘If it is a low-grade job then, by all means, advertise and select candidates yourself, but beware of the consequences,” he said.

‘‘We have had companies tell us that they received upwards of 300 CVs when they advertised jobs. It is so easy for people to submit a CV by e-mail now that everyone fires them off, even if the job advertised isn’t really a direct match to their skills.

Putting together a good CV

According to Michelle Thomas of training provider Michael Communications, the key to putting together a good CV is to realise that it is essentially a sales document, whose sole purpose is to secure an interview.

‘‘It is important to understand that the jobs market is like any other market – there are buyers and sellers, and the laws of supply and demand are as valid as anywhere else. Being good at your job is not enough; lots of people are good at their jobs. Success depends on your ability to sell yourself, and the first stage in this process is your CV,” said Thomas.

Recruiters want to know what you can do and what sort of person you are. Hence, Thomas said, CVs should emphasise what potential employers want to know about a candidate, and not what the candidate wants to say about them self.

‘‘You need to establish your own characteristics, strengths, weaknesses and track record, so that you can present them in a way that will appeal to the sort of employer you are trying to attract,” she said.

A CV should also be easy-to-read and well-presented. ‘‘It should be typed, but not bound into fancy folders that do not fit into recruiters’ files. It should also be complete. There should be no unexplained gaps in the history. Any information that makes you seem an interesting candidate should be included, but it should also be accurate,” Thomas said.

Remember also that facts and figures can be checked. ‘‘It is very foolish to misrepresent yourself – liars get very short interviews,” said Thomas.

‘‘Show your academic qualifications complete with dates, and show your highest level of education first. Include membership of professional bodies that reflect genuine attainment – recruiters know which ones are simply bought by paying a subscription.”

The au pair alternative

From last week’s Sunday Business Post . . .

The au pair alternative
Sunday, May 09, 2010 – By Alex Meehan

Paying someone to look after your children has always been a challenge for parents, and that challenge became particularly difficult during the boom years when the costs associated with childcare soared.

Despite the downturn, full-time childcare can equal the cost of a mortgage payment each month; for many working parents who have taken a pay cut or seen their hours reduced, that’s a burden that is increasingly hard to shoulder.

So it’s perhaps not surprising that an increasing number of parents are moving away from creches and nannies, and are instead choosing to have their children looked after by an au pair. Sean Kavanagh of the SK Dublin au pair agency has seen demand for his services increase by 30 per cent over the past year, as parents seek to reduce their childcare costs.

‘‘One of our clients told us that he had paid around €28,000 to a creche over the previous couple of years. When his wife’s and his own income was cut badly, he asked them to reduce their fees by 20 per cent. They wouldn’t do it, and so they began to look into an au pair as an alternative,” says Kavanagh.

‘‘Hosting an au pair can be much cheaper than other forms of childcare, but there are also other advantages – for example, if both parents are getting up early for work and leaving the house at 8am, then they don’t have to get the kids out of bed unnaturally early to drop them to a creche on the way,” he says.

According to Kavanagh, an increasing number of young people in countries such as Spain, Italy and France are seeking au pair placements in Ireland. ‘‘There are more au pairs coming here now because there are fewer jobs in Europe,” he says.

‘‘We talk to lots of girls who’ve graduated from school or college and see the job prospects at home as pretty bleak. From their point of view, au pairing can make a lot of sense – they get to take six months or a year out to see a foreign country, while improving their language skills at the same time.

In Spain and Italy in particular, good-quality English is a really valuable skill to have in the workplace.” According to Kavanagh, the basic cost of having an au pair look after your children is €100 a week, payable as pocket money, along with the associated costs of providing food and board for your au pair.

In addition, there are extra fees, up to a maximum of €390, payable to his agency for facilitating the introduction and providing support over the course of the arrangement. He only works with au pairs who are at least 18 years of age.

‘‘That is a lot cheaper than fulltime childcare, but it’s important to realise that they are very different things,” he says.

‘‘In return for their pocket money, an au pair will do a standard 30 hours a week child minding, as well as two nights a week babysitting. Included in the 30 hours are light housekeeping duties such as tidying, vacuuming, helping with housework and preparing light meals for the kids. Families can pay their au pair whatever they like in pocket money, but €100 a week is really the minimum.”

Kavanagh recommends that housework should only make up between one and two hours of an au pair’s duties per day. ‘‘They shouldn’t be expected to scrub bathrooms and toilets – there’s a difference between cleaning a house from top to bottom, and keeping an already clean house tidy,” he says.

While the terminology can vary from agency to agency, there are several different kinds of au pairs available, depending on the host family’s needs. The standard au pair works around 30 hours a week as well as two evenings a week, but is not really a full-time child minder – it is usually expected that one of the child’s parents is around for some of each day to help out.

An ‘au pair minder’ is prepared to work longer hours and take care of a child on their own while both parents are out at work, while an ‘au pair plus’ usually works up to 40 hours and will perform extra duties around the house. It’s possible to recruit all types of au pairs through an agency, or via the internet.

Using the net means parents avoid paying extra fees, but Kavanagh says there is a difference between the services provided.

‘‘We work with 35 agencies around Europe, and the girls we place have been interviewed and vetted in their home countries, so the whole process is more accountable,” he says. ‘‘When we match up au pairs and families, we make sure there is some communication in advance, either over the phone or online, so that everyone gets to know each other a bit. It’s important that everyone involved has a clear idea of what is expected of them.”

According to Kavanagh, it’s not necessary to live in a particularly large house to accommodate an au pair, but host families do need to be able to meet certain basic criteria.

‘‘You don’t need to have a huge amount of space, but you do need to have a spare bedroom or an attic conversion – it’s important for the au pair to have their own space to retreat to,” he says. ‘‘Usually the au pair is working when you’re not there, so they have the house to themselves during the day.

When you come home, they’ll probably be ready to do their own thing, to head out to meet friends or to watch a movie in their room.”

Having a linguistically-challenged 18-year-old move in with you to look after your kids can take a bit of getting used to, and while it’s definitely attractive from a cost perspective, parents who have used au pairs say the key to getting it right lies in creating the right relationship.

‘‘Having an au pair is very different to having a child in childcare or having a full-time child minder – if you’re thinking of switching, you need to realise that it’s a different world altogether,” says Jackie Bennett, who lives in south Co Dublin with her husband Benji and their children Harry, nine, Robbie, three, and one-and-a-half year old Molly. The couple’s other son, Adam, died in 2007 aged four.

‘‘An au pair isn’t an employee, and you can’t really treat them as if they work for you,” she says.

‘‘They’re paid so little that it wouldn’t be fair – they have to be treated as part of the family. They’re not professional childminders, and they’re certainly not cleaners. You also have to remember that there will be a language barrier, and make allowances for that.”

But Bennett is enthusiastic about her experiences with au pairs.

‘‘Anyone with young children will tell you that to have someone mind the kids while you get out for a few hours on your own is fantastic,” she says.

‘‘Being able to do that, and maybe also go out once or twice a week in the evening, even just to go for a walk or to the cinema, adds significantly to your quality of life.

I get out twice a week with my husband and that’s really important for us, particularly since Adam passed on.”

Families considering hosting an au pair may like the idea of the convenience but also baulk at the notion of having to play surrogate parent to a potentially sullen teenager.

While disagreements do occur, in Bennett’s experience it isn’t difficult to work through the issues.

‘‘The key is to remember that they are young, and that you need to be aware of their feelings and moods. If someone is in your house and living with your family, it has to work. If it’s not working then there’s a reason – and it’s either your personality or theirs,” she says.

‘‘We’ve been really lucky, things have mostly always worked out for us, but I think that’s because we put the effort in. When it works, having an au pair can be fantastic.

If they’re a nice person that you get on well with, they can really add to the family.”

Seasoned au pair hosts Derek Ryan and Catriona Coyle agree.

Their two boys, Jack, ten, and Bobby, seven, were cared for by a variety of au pairs over a five-year period.

‘‘Sharing your home can be tricky, and in some ways it can be a bit restrictive. But an awful lot depends on the au pair themselves,” says Derek Ryan. ‘‘Some are in tune with the family and know that if a husband and wife are having a conversation, then maybe it would be a good idea to make themselves scarce. With others, you’d have to send a telegram to let them know.

Essentially, these are big kids themselves who are usually away from home on their own for the first time.

They get homesick, they miss their own food and they struggle with the language.”

Ensuring the au pair feels comfortable in the host family’s home is crucial, according to Ryan. ‘‘If they’re happy and are enjoying being in your house, that will translate to a happier environment for your kids,” he says.

‘‘You can make life easy for yourself by making their space comfortable – put a TV in their bedroom, and maybe internet access, so they can stay in touch with their family and friends on Facebook.

And before they even get on a plane, get on the phone and talk to them. Ask them if they’ve been abroad before, whether they have brothers or sisters, whether they live in the city or in the countryside. Try to gauge if what they think they’re getting into is the same as what you think they’ll be doing, so your expectations aren’t dissimilar.”

Most importantly, don’t approach hiring an au pair as a solely financial solution. ‘‘If you only approach it from the financial perspective, nobody is going to benefit,” says Ryan.

‘‘You’re trusting your most precious assets – your kids – to your au pair, so you want to be totally happy.’

First published on Sunday May 11th 2010 in The Sunday Business Post.